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Apple’s Dr. Brain is a bold, genre-bending thriller

A decent Korean original series debut for the platform, helmed by a seasoned director

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dr. brain
Image: Apple

Although Dr. Brain stumbles through its world-building at times, there is something deeply bold and profoundly ambitious in this first Korean original series on Apple TV Plus. Dr. Brain takes off as a six-episode thriller starring Lee Sun-kyun (of Parasite fame) as neuroscientist Dr. Koh Se-won. It’s an encouraging start for the streamer’s Korean debut, though the show doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its fascinating premise and excellent cast.

We are first introduced to Dr. Koh as a young kid on the autism spectrum, struggling to understand emotions and relate to others. He is unfortunately labeled as a problem child in school, which becomes an enormous burden for his single mother. Bringing him to doctors, the (exorbitant) treatments offered don’t quite seem to work the way she hopes for. Growing up with a propensity to “take things apart to see what is inside,” Dr. Koh dives into brain research, which allows him to study the human mind and get a glimpse of how others experience the world. Presenting his research and experiments at conferences, he is portrayed as a relatively successful scientist — albeit one whose ideas are unsettling to his peers. This introduction then takes a dark, abrupt turn as Dr. Koh suffers a series of horrific personal tragedies in quick succession. Increasingly desperate to unearth what happened, he personally tests his research by undergoing “brain syncs” with the dead to pry open their memories for clues. 

Dr. Brain is a genre-bending piece of work, dancing between crime thriller, science fiction, and, most poignantly, a family drama. The series’ best work is in its portrait of grief, sketching Dr. Koh’s private moments as ones of anguish and gradual reckoning with his own flaws and missteps. There is a saying in academia that all research is in some part autobiographical and this rings true for Dr. Koh. His “brain sync” research becomes both a form of mourning and a type of searching, as he realizes that there is something more sinister behind the tragedies. 

Lee Sun-kyun delivers an appropriately reserved performance, getting the balance just right between playing an aloof neuroscientist and a traumatized, bereaved man seeking answers. His colleague, Dr. Hong Nam-il (Lee Jae-won), blossoms over the series, portraying a depth of character that far outdoes what the script offers him. As police officer Lieutenant Choi, Seo Ji-hye (from the immensely popular Crash Landing On You) offers a refreshing steadiness throughout the series. 

There are unshakeable marks of Inception echoing through the six episodes, as characters wander through altered realities and layers of consciousness. Dr. Brain is most intriguing when its characters are unsure whether other people they are seeing are real or figments from a glitchy brain sync. Although the show fumbles through the details of the brain sync mechanism, the central story of Dr. Koh’s search for truth and redemption is resoundingly coherent. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the more philosophical explorations in Dr. Brain — on neurodiversity, ethics in brain research, and the concept of the self — are half-baked. Additionally, its treatment of female characters feels disconcertingly underdeveloped. They’re often left with little agency, abruptly enter and exit the narrative, and are ultimately relegated as untidy footnotes. With its uneven pace over six episodes, there is a gnawing sense that Dr. Brain could have been truly great if its supporting characters and theories were more deeply fleshed out. 

For example, though it never examines this fully, Dr. Brain hints at some of the most complex moral dilemmas in technology that we’re really only beginning to truly interrogate. It is gravely disturbing to see Dr. Koh lurking around the morgue to find a corpse to test out his brain sync technology or hook himself up with a cat (!!) in the name of (hopefully) solving a crime. There is a fine balance between being a user of technology and being used by technology. Here is where the concept of brain syncs in the show carries some real-life parallels. How much of ourselves do we share via technology — and do we even have control over what and how much is shared? What does privacy mean in this digital age? Can the methods of technological advancement be justified as long as the outcomes are “good”? 

Dr. Brain
Image: Apple

These questions are all the more poignant given the fact that the show is backed by one of the biggest technology companies in the world. There is perhaps a meta-critique here somewhere about the relationship between Apple and its users and whether our lives have really been made better by its products. Perhaps the conclusion that the show offers us is one of stubborn ambivalence toward technology: Dr. Koh’s use of brain sync technology (somewhat ironically) allows him to experience the richness of life, in all of its emotions, joys and sorrows, more than he ever could without it. Yet, this comes at a cost. He sometimes suffers from an information overload and his personality changes when reality and technology start to blur. 

Seasoned writer-director Kim Jee-woon has helmed critically acclaimed Korean classics like The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and Korea’s first Warner Brothers-funded film The Age of Shadows (2016). There are flashes of brilliance throughout the series, particularly in its seamless, well-timed use of flashbacks — a storytelling tool that too often feels abused nowadays. On one level, his sleek transitions between past and present fittingly capture the unsettled mind of Dr. Koh. On another, these shifts in time provide an absorbingly suspenseful experience for the viewer, especially in the last few episodes. This works in the show’s favor, as Apple TV Plus will drop episodes of Dr. Brain one at a time, weekly through December 10th.

Based on the popular Korean webtoon of the same name, Dr. Brain premiered on November 4th, coinciding with Apple TV Plus’ launch in the Korean market. Though Dr. Brain might feel like a slow start for Apple, it is perhaps helpful to remember that not too long ago, Netflix debuted its first Korean original series Love Alarm to rather disappointing, less-than-illustrious reviews. However, the platform has since developed a prolific portfolio of Korean shows winning both critical and commercial acclaim, most notably with the breakout success of Squid Game. Despite its shortcomings, Dr. Brain offers a promising, hopeful glimpse of Apple TV Plus’ vision for its future projects in Korea and a veritable challenge to other streamers in the market.